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The Ironclad Oath was a key factor in the removing of ex-Confederates from the political arena during the Reconstruction of the United States in the 1860s. To take the Ironclad Oath, a person had to swear he had never borne arms against the Union or supported the Confederacy — that is, he had "never voluntarily borne arms against the United States," had "voluntarily" given "no aid, countenance, counsel or encouragement" to persons in rebellion and had exercised or attempted to exercise the functions of no office under the Confederacy. Its unpopularity among ex-Confederates led them to nickname the oath "The Damnesty Oath."
Congress originally devised the oath in July 1862 for all federal employees, lawyers and federal elected officials. It was applied to Southern voters in the Wade-Davis Bill of 1864, which President Abraham Lincoln pocket vetoed. President Andrew Johnson also opposed it. Both Johnson and Lincoln wanted Southerners instead to swear to an oath that in the future they would support the Union. Lincoln's amnesty oath was integral to his ten percent plan, for reconstruction.
In 1867 the United States Supreme Court held that the federal ironclad oath for attorneys and the similar Missouri state oath for teachers and other professionals were unconstitutional, because they violated the constitutional prohibitions against bills of attainder and ex post facto laws. Cummings v. Missouri, 4 Wall. 277 (1867); Ex parte Garland, 4 Wall. 333 (1867).
In March 1867 Radical Republicans prohibited anyone from voting in the election of delegates to state constitutional conventions or in the subsequent ratification who was prohibited from holding office under section 3 of the pending Fourteenth Amendment. Those exclusions were less inclusive than the requirements of the Iron-Clad Oath. These exclusions did apply to any subsequent elections within the state. Voting restrictions on former Confederates voting during the rest of Reconstruction varied state by state. Very few were disenfranchised in Georgia, Texas, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. Alabama and Arkansas banned only those ineligible to hold office under the Fourteenth Amendment. Louisiana banned those editors and ministers who had supported secession or anybody who had voted for the secession ordinance, but allowed them to vote if they took an oath favoring Radical Reconstruction, a much more lenient avowal than required by the Ironclad Oath. In states where there was disenfranchisement the maximum percentage was 10-20% of otherwise eligible white voters with most states having considerably smaller percentages.
- The Amendment provided, "No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof."
- Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution page 324
- Donald, David; Baker Jean Harvey; and Holt, Michael F. The Civil War and Reconstruction. page 580
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- Belz, Herman. Reconstructing the Union: Theory and Policy during the Civil War 1969
- Benedict, Michael Les A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction, 1863–1869 1974
- Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 1988. Harper & Row: New York. ISBN 0-06-091453-x
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- Hyman, Harold M.' To Try Men's Souls: Loyalty Tests in American History 1959.
- Article in the Catholic Encyclopedia